5 Traits of a Successful Japanese Learner

Let’s be honest, learning a language is tough. While some learners go on to be highly proficient speakers, living and working in their second language, a large number (probably a majority) either give up half way or struggle to progress beyond the intermediate level.

Fortunately, whether or not a person will become an advanced-level bilingual doesn’t seem to have any relation to their IQ or age (although those factors probably do speed things up). The traits that I have noticed over the years which advanced-level learners have in common are entirely subjective and with some effort are controllable.

I’ve made this list of successful traits based on my personal experience and my observations of other learners at various levels. I believe that a person’s state of mind is both their greatest asset and their greatest liability when learning a language. So, I hope this article will offer some insight for those of you just getting started with Japanese, or anyone struggling to make progress.

You might be a promising Japanese learner if…

1. You carry around a vocabulary notepad

Ok, so it doesn’t have to be a notepad; it could be a notebook or a sheet of paper or even a memo on your smartphone. The point is to have some kind of portable, easily accessible storage tool for language data. Of course you have to actually use it too.

But the functional aspect is only half of the story. The other half is the state of mind behind the notepad. It shows a constant determination to acquire new language information and review old information, whenever and wherever you happen to be. In other words, you are always in study mode.

2. Your hobbies and your study overlap

A lot of people learning Japanese enjoy anime, manga, Japanese literature, Japanese video games or other (even non-linguistic) things that have to do with Japan like martial arts or food. It can be anything, really.

It seems obvious that advanced Japanese learners would have an interest in Japanese stuff, but I’m including it in the list because I want to make a more philosophical point. That is, if our brain thinks “Japan = Japanese = fun”, then it learns better and you don’t tire as quickly.

It’s kind of like how whatever Republicans say invariably makes no sense to Democrats, and vice versa. Your brain is very talented at deciphering new information if it wants to. But if your brain sees learning Japanese as a chore, it’s going to fight you the whole way.

3. You’re not afraid of Kanji

I think just heard screams in the distance. Yes, I know even a whisper of the word “kanji” strikes fear into the hearts of many of you, but trust me: the sooner you embrace kanji, the better off you will be.

Kanji are not only a great way to identify and learn new words, they’re the self-reinforcing backbone of the language. They’re like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The more you learn, the easier they get and the more everything else starts to come together.

And I probably don’t need to remind you that not knowing kanji precludes access to 99% of real-world Japanese, so avoiding kanji is basically like saying you don’t want to be able to read Japanese. It’s like someone trying to major in computer programming without learning how to type.

Unfortunately, kanji just take effort. I had to learn about 500 kanji before I stopped hating them. After that, I actually enjoyed the next 1000 kanji, but then got kind of tired and indifferent for the last 500.

4. You’re stubborn and hate to lose

I think people see TV commercials or Google ads telling them they can learn Japanese in 5 minutes a day or whatever, and they get this expectation that learning a language is like making a pot of coffee. Of course, sooner or later they realize it’s unfathomably bigger and more difficult than that.

To overcome the inevitable frustration that comes with learning a language, it helps to be a downright stubborn son-of-a-b@#$%. Like a compulsive gambler, you need to keep doubling-down instead of admitting defeat. When I was frustrated and tired, it helped me to think of all the time I spent so far that would be wasted if I decided to give up.

Some might call this not knowing when to quit, but instead it’s the opposite. You know exactly when to quit: never.

A short personal aside: when I started university, I tried to skip first year Japanese and test into the 2nd year classes (I had studied a good deal on my own already). Well, my writing skill was a little rough on the edges, so the teacher wouldn’t allow it. I was devastated, humiliated and intensely furious. But that defeat was a huge turning point for me, it was the moment when I went super-saiyan with my studies. By the time I graduated I was so far ahead of the class that studying for the tests would have been a waste of time. Yes, it’s emotionally stressful to be a stubborn learner, but the tradeoff is that you can actually turn your hardships to your benefit.

5. You’re never satisfied

Perhaps this last trait is more for moving even beyond the advanced level, but it’s still great for speeding up progress through beginner and intermediate.

When it comes to learning a language, satisfaction is a bad thing. If you’re satisfied with your Japanese, you’re not setting your sights high enough. It’s like settling for a McDonalds burger when you could have an 8-ounce-Kobe-beef-bacon-double-cheddar-cheese-deluxe.

In addition, satisfaction can be a death blow to your will to practice and review. Not forgetting what you’ve learned is half the battle, so you can never let your guard down.

Always demanding more from yourself keeps you receptive to new information, and helps you pay more attention to details. Not to mention it keeps you humble too. (If you think your Japanese is good, chances are you’re probably just not aware of most of your mistakes)

Final word

I’d say that most advanced learners I’ve met have 3 or 4 of the traits/habits I listed above. Remember though, on Nihonshock I promote a notion of learning where the assumed goal is enough proficiency to read a novel, survive a job interview or keep up with native speakers’ izakaya conversations, but not everyone needs to or even wants to take it that far. So no offense to more casual learners, but when I say “advanced” or “successful” I’m talking about JLPT N1 and above.

Shameless plug

You know what else is really great for becoming a successful Japanese learner? Nihonshock.com’s Japanese Cheat Sheet Pack, of course! :-D Do you have yours yet? If not, check it out.

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